Want Vietnamese fresh spring rolls from Ha Long Bay? Put some pants on.
The Southeast Asian restaurant on Madison’s east side doesn’t deliver, but manager Stephanie Le didn’t blame the hopeful person who placed an order through Grubhub a few weeks ago. She appreciated their business.
Le was less than thrilled with Grubhub.
“We didn’t give them permission to put us on their platform and we don’t deliver for a reason,” said Le. “If a customer has ordered it, we don’t want to refuse something that has been paid for. But we’re trying to stop having our menu on these platforms.”
As Wisconsinites hibernate on frigid winter weeknights, demand for delivery naturally ticks up. Over the past few weeks, restaurateurs across Madison have been raising a chorus of frustration over the tactics of third-party delivery companies like DoorDash, Grubhub and Postmates.
In an attempt to acquire more market share and prove demand, some delivery companies scrape menus from restaurant websites and post them online without the restaurant’s consent or knowledge. This has led to bad feelings all around — diners upset that their food is cold, wrong or late, restaurants feeling duped and taken advantage of.
“We can only manage the business that we know about,” said Le. “If the delivery is a third party service, we don’t have any control or knowledge of what’s going on with the food when it leaves our restaurant.
“I don’t think anybody all of a sudden wants to find out they’re in an unknown partnership.”
As of Tuesday, Grubhub could take your order for wings and a gyro at Athens Grill in Westport. They could dispatch an independently contracted driver to the restaurant and place that order on your behalf, paying for it with a Grubhub credit card. Then they drive it to you. Easy, right?
There are problems with this. You think you ordered from Athens Grill, not Grubhub, so if you call to check on the status of your gyro, the restaurant won’t be able to find the order — Athens doesn’t have a relationship with Grubhub. If the chicken is cold or the greens have wilted, you could decide that’s the restaurant’s fault, leading to bad feelings and one-star Facebook reviews.
“If a Grubhub driver comes in and places an order, we don’t know what’s happening,” said Molly Maciejewski, chef of Madison Sourdough’s east side café. “Then the food could sit in a car for half an hour and show up to someone’s door looking terrible. They wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, this is Grubhub’s fault.’ They’d say, ‘Oh, Madison Sourdough sent me terrible food.’
“We had a customer who called and said, I placed my order 45 minutes ago,” she added. “We said, we don’t deliver, and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Grubhub furthers the confusion (some say deception) by telling drivers to use diners’ names (not Grubhub’s) when placing orders at restaurants. Some drivers go further, not using the Grubhub-branded bag or blocking out the name on the debit card. There are restaurants that will cancel an order if they know it’s from a place they didn’t approve.
Sometimes they have no choice but to reject the order. The menu Grubhub posted recently for the Italian restaurant Lombardino’s included dishes from last spring, including asparagus soup and pan-seared Alaskan halibut. Lombardino’s changes its menus seasonally. Those things aren’t available anymore.
“You’re already disappointed because we don’t have the dish you want,” said Lombardino’s chef/owner Patrick O’Halloran. “The menus aren’t current and they’re not timely with pick-up. ... And does the client know they’re not dealing with the restaurant at all? I don’t know how clear that is.”
Restaurants may not choose to offer delivery because they’re busy enough. In the case of fried food or ramen noodles in broth or steamed mussels, that food wasn’t designed to be boxed and held in the backseat of a car for the better part of an hour.
The Old Fashioned, known for its cheese curds, eliminated all to-go food for this reason.
“Once we started getting recognition for our cheese curds, people started ordering them. But 45 minutes after they’re made it’s a big gloppy mess,” said Tami Lax, owner of The Old Fashioned and it’s fine dining sibling, Harvest. “Customers will get it and complain and give us negative reviews. We don’t want to open ourselves up to that.”
Customers can complain because they’ve paid up to get a burger and fries dropped at their door. Delivery fees can add up to nearly a third of the cost of the original food order. According to one industry study, fees for Postmates were, on average, 30% of the food total. The average was 21% for DoorDash, 20% for Uber Eats and 12% for Grubhub.
Locally, restaurateurs have noted that on Grubhub, it can cost nearly $40 to get two bagel sandwiches delivered (Gotham Bagels), $30 for a bowl of pho (Ha Long Bay) and $21 for three tiny tacos (bartaco at Hilldale). None of those fees go to the restaurant.
“The markup is so high, we just don’t think it’s fair,” said Le at Ha Long Bay. “We tested it out to see what an order of egg rolls would cost. It costs $3 before tax from the restaurant. Delivery, with tip and everything, ended up being almost $20. Even if the customer is willing to pay for that I don’t think that’s fair or right.”
At your (third-party) service
DoorDash and Postmates have been posting menus without restaurant consent for years. Grubhub, which owns Seamless, MenuPages, LevelUp and AllMenus, started scraping menus more recently. EatStreet, the local company with the most restaurant partners in Madison (450), said it does not post menus from non-partner restaurants.
“Competition in the food delivery market is hitting an all-time high,” EatStreet CEO Matt Howard wrote in an email. “When competitors launch a new strategy, it is common for restaurants to assume that EatStreet is doing the same thing.”
It’s not the first time delivery startups have engaged in deceptive behavior. Last summer, the website The Counter reported that Grubhub and Seamless registered more than 23,000 web domains on behalf of restaurants. Some of these have expired, but they included rockyrococomadison.com and theromancandlepizzeria.com. (Grubhub told The Counter, “We no longer provide that service and it has always been our practice to transfer the domain to the restaurant as soon as they request it.”)
It can set up new phone numbers for contracted restaurants, too, and charge the restaurant when calls come through that way. Last year, an Indian chain in Philadelphia filed a class-action lawsuit against Grubhub for charging restaurants for phone calls that didn’t result in orders.
In response to this story, Grubhub emailed the Cap Times a statement, allowing that the partnering-without-consent model is not ideal.
“Historically, we’d only chosen to list partnered restaurants,” wrote Jenna DeMarco, a corporate communications associate and spokesperson for Grubhub. “We still firmly believe this is the right way to build the marketplace and the only way to drive long term value for diners, restaurants and drivers.”
Food delivery has become extremely competitive. The data firm Second Measure reported in January that delivery sales increased 41% year-over-year in 2019. DoorDash surpassed Grubhub last May and has dominated since. Grubhub has denied reports of a pending sale.
“Other food delivery companies have chosen to list non-partnered restaurants on their marketplaces for years to widen their supply of restaurants,” DeMarco wrote. “We’re now trying this strategy in select markets as a way to close the restaurant supply gap and drive more delivery orders to local restaurants.”
Grubhub hopes to “convert these non-partnered restaurants to partnered restaurants ... to create a better experience.”
She would not share statistics on how often that happens.
Restaurants that do partner with Grubhub have more control over which menu items they make available for delivery and what hours they offer it. At Next Door Brewing Company, sous chef Joe Denker said as far as he’s concerned, everything is going fine with Grubhub.
“They give us as much freedom as we want with timing,” Denker said. “If we know there’s going to be a big group on a Friday, we can turn it off, ‘no Grubhub right now.’ It’s totally flexible in that way.”
Nearby, a Grubhub driver showed up to Alchemy Café last week, placed a to-go order based on an old menu and tried to pay with a debit card. Alchemy takes only cash. The driver left empty handed.
“The incorrect menu, that bothers me,” said Alchemy owner/manager Amanda Versch. “We change it seasonally and our food is local. We have a hard time keeping our own stuff up to date, and when it gets moved around it’s harder to make sure it’s accurate.
“I felt bad for the person who ordered.”
Fast, fresh, fees
Restaurants operate on thin margins, and many must work out a delivery plan whether they want to or not. A Gallup poll published in May 2019 reported that 34% of diners had food delivered in the previous 30 days.
Polled customers rated third-party delivery services as “highest on cost, lowest on speed and second-lowest on accuracy and quality” when compared with dining in, drive-thru and delivery run by the restaurant itself.
Offering delivery in any form adds a level of cost — marketing fees, delivery fees, credit card fees, commissions. Restaurants can bump up the online menu prices or pass fees along to customers in a separate line item. EatStreet, for example, charges restaurants a flat fee per order.
After negative experiences with other services, some local restaurateurs have chosen EatStreet as the best possible option. Patrick DePula, owner of Salvatore’s Tomato Pies locations in Sun Prairie and Madison and the new DarkHorse on East Washington Avenue, works with EatStreet for Madison only. He’s lukewarm about it.
“We get enough guff from customers when EatStreet quotes a delivery time and they’re late, and the food is sitting in our window waiting for EatStreet to pick it up,” DePula said. But “at least there’s a system.”
That’s easier, he said, than juggling delivery you’re not aware of. In that case, there’s no contact with the customer “until there’s a problem and we don’t know what the problem is.”
Dave Heide, owner of Liliana’s in Fitchburg and Charlie’s on Main in Oregon, offered two weeks of free Liliana’s delivery starting Feb. 10 to let diners know about that restaurant’s new relationship with EatStreet.
“Obviously there’s no food on the planet that’s going to taste as good delivered as it does in the restaurant,” Heide said. But EatStreet offered “the best follow up in communication I’ve had from a tech company. 85-90% of our menu is great for to-go. The disadvantage is you miss interaction with your customer.”
O’Halloran, who co-owns Lombardino’s and two locations of The Tipsy Cow, said he and business partner Michael Banas have been weighing Tipsy’s options for delivery. It could be a way to grow the business, but they’d need to design a version of the menu that worked for travel. At Lombardino’s, he doubts they’ll try it.
“Spaghetti Bolognese is degrading from the minute it hits the box,” O’Halloran said. “Even our pizza, which is delicate, falls apart in the box.”
Delivery, he said, is a cost of doing business in 2020.
“That’s the trend of the future,” O’Halloran said. “People aren’t going out. ... I can see people want convenience of ordering an app, but do I feel comfortable sending them fries topped with Korean beef or carnitas that are going to be a mess by the time they get there an hour later?
“I want the customer to have the best experience with the food,” he added. “I’m not here 12 hours a day so you can get two-hour-old halibut.”